16. The Brotherhood Church

Submitted by Steven. on January 23, 2013

The NLHL was not the only centre of the anti-War movement in North London. Another was the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road. But to understand its role it is necessary to make a historical digression. The Church was founded in 1662, as an independent congregational chapel. In 1862 it moved to its final site in Southgate Road; at this time it was a conventional chapel, although it had some fairly radical connections. In 1892 the Reverend Bruce Wallace became the Minister. Wallace was a Christian Socialist. In 1887 he had founded the socialist paper Brotherhood at Limavady in Northern Ireland, in which he developed the ideas he was later to put into practice.

When Bruce Wallace took over he renamed the Southgate Road Chapel the Brotherhood Church, and it rapidly became the centre of a whole range of radical and socialist activities. The Brotherhood Association, the Church's 'political' wing, had about 15 branches by the turn of the century, mostly in London but. one or two elsewhere.

There were also several associated churches, for example those at Croydon, Harrow Road, Forest Gate and Walthamstow.1 Also connected with the Church was the Co-operative Brotherhood Trust which operated several workshops and shops, of which at least one, the shop at 37 Newington Green, seems to have lasted until after the 1914-1918 War.

About the turn of the century, the Brotherhood movement spawned a number of communities in the countryside where members lived together. There were four of these in Essex alone, and while many were relatively short lived, one at least, 'The Commune' at Stanford-le- Hope, was in existence until the Second World War. 'The Commune' and some other Brotherhood-connected groups seem to have played quite an important part in the informal network helping 'dodgers' on the run. After the end of the War 'The Commune' provided a recuperative haven for a number of anti-War activists, notably Reg Sorenson and Fenner Brockway and their families.2 .

The politics of the Church were basically christian socialist and pacifist - a number of its members were Quakers. There was a strong Tolstoyan anarchist current and William Morris was an important influence.3

The Church had strong links with the socialist movement, exemplified by the record of one of its prominent members, H. A. Barker.

Barker also illustrates how, whenever you look at the wartime radical movement, you have only to scratch the surface to find strong connections with previous radical waves embedded within them. Barker (1858-1940) was a Trustee of the Brotherhood Church for its last 30 years. A builder by trade, he was born in Shoreditch and seems to have lived in the general area all his life; as a boy he had been confirmed at the Southgate Road Chapel before it was taken over by Bruce Wallace. Barker was a pioneer socialist. He was probably a member of the Labour Emancipation League, a forerunner of the SDF, and he was certainly a very early member of the latter. In December 1884 Barker left the SDF with the Socialist League split, and he became a very active member of the new body, of which he eventually became National Secretary between 1886 and 1888.

In 1888 Barker left the Socialist League with a number of other members who objected to the growing anti-parliamentarian ism of that organisation, and he helped to found the Labour Union, a short-lived socialist group which played a prominent part, with H. A. Barker much to the fore, in the industrial struggles in North London in the 1889-1890 period, notably the successful and pretty violent strike of coal porters at the St Pan eras Arches complex in July and August 1889, which led to the formation of the Coal Porters' Union. The Labour Union was also heavily involved in the disastrous strike of postmen at Mount Pleasant and other local post offices in July 1890, which was completely smashed by the authorities.

Barker went on to play a leading part in the formation of the ILP and he was a member of its first executive. He was an active member of the Brotherhood Church from its formation until its closure.4

A notable event at the Church under Bruce Wallace was the Congress there in 1907 of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party which was attended by virtually all the prominent figures of both the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Party.5

In January 1911 the Church was taken over by F. R. Swan, who got the job with the help of the Reverend R. J. Campbell of the City Temple. Campbell had been Secretary of Finsbury ILP.6 Swan had lost his previous living because of his support for Victor Grayson, the successful independent socialist candidate in the Colne Valley election of 1907. He was a member of the ILP and had joined the staff of the Daily Herald virtuallv from its foundation.

Under Swan's ministry the Church became even more explicitly political. Its service took the form of a reading from the Bible - in accordance with a clause in the Church's trustee agreement - readings from other books, the singing of songs from the Labour Songbook, and a speaker. Among the huge number of speakers before the War were Annie Besant, Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Lansbury.

The same month that War broke out the Church had its first anti-War meeting, at which the main speaker was Herbert Burrows.7 From then on the opposition of the Brotherhood Church to the War remained constant, although its attitude was pacifist rather than militant. By and large the importance of the Church during the War was as a place for meetings. Those involved in the anti-War struggle found it very difficult to obtain halls for meetings and the existence of the Brotherhood Church as a friendly reliable venue made it much in demand, so much so that George Lansbury described it as 'the Mecca, the meeting place of those who wanted peace'.8

As an illustration of what this meant, we can take the first six months of 1916. On January 16th, a 'Stop the War' meeting at the Church was attacked by hooligans who, as well as assaulting individuals, pelted the meeting with thunderflashes and other missiles. On January 30th, the 'Anti-German League' held a meeting of about 700 people outside the Church, calling on the authorities to close down peace meetings there. The Chairman of this meeting was Alderman Vorley.

On March 10th, Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at a meeting organised by the WSF. This meeting was attacked and broken up by a mob which included many soldiers in uniform led by an officer; Canadian troops were prominent. An interesting feature of this meeting, and perhaps an omen of things to come, was that quite a few of the soldiers who had come to disrupt found that they were in agreement with the WSF's case. Finally in June 1916 there was a series of large meetings at the Church called by the No-Conscription Fellowship at which the main speaker was Clifford Allen. There seems to have been no substantial disruption of these meetings.

Perhaps the peak of the Brotherhood Church's involvement in the anti-War struggle came in July 1917 when, in response to the February Revolution in Russia, the Leeds Convention met to set up Councils of Workers' and Soldiers' Delegates.9 The Convention decided, among other things, to hold a series of regional meetings, one of them to be held in London. The original London hall having failed to materialise due to police pressure, the meeting was moved to the Brotherhood Church.

This meeting took place on July 28th. There were about 250 delegates including a number of servicemen. There had been some attempt to keep the venue of the meeting private but even so the authorities were well prepared. Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, noted in his diary on 27th July in relation to the meeting:

They will have a rude awakening tomorrow, as I have arranged for the Daily Express to publish the place of the meeting and strong opposition may be expected.10

Leaflets were also distributed in the area stating that a pro-German meeting was taking place and that 'scores of old soldiers and others are going to march to the canal bridge to show these traitors what we think of them'. The leaflets called on the local population to 'remember the last air raid and roll up'.11 Part of the job of mobilising the mob was taken on by Horatio Bottomley,12 Then MP for South Hackney, who ran a sort of mini-Tammany Hall locally which had a 'stable' of roughs on call.

Long before the meeting was due to start the mobs had begun to gather. It was estimated that they eventually totalled 8,000, many of them in uniform. The leaders of the military contingent seem to have been a Canadian soldier and two Royal Naval Air Service men. Also present were our old friends the Anti-German League. There was also a strong force of police in attendance.

By 3 pm the Church was completely surrounded. At 3.15 a sledge-hammer mysteriously materialised and the front door of the Church was smashed in and the fight started. The delegates who had already arrived were trapped in the small hall at the back. Meanwhile the crowd systematically smashed up the main hall; windows and fanlights were broken and frames ripped out, the furniture was almost completely destroyed, water pipes were pulled out of the walls and the hall was partially flooded.

Bertrand Russell - who was there - described what happened to the trapped delegates:

A few people, among them Francis Meynell13 attempted resistance, and I remember him returning from the door with his face streaming with blood.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused pointblank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everyone had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken women began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested they should defend me. The police merely shrugged their shoulders. 'But he is an eminent philosopher', said the lady, and the police still shrugged. 'But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning', she continued. The police remained unmoved. 'But he is the brother of an Earl', she finally cried. At this the police rushed to my assistance. They were, however, too late to be of any service, and I owe my life to a young woman whom I did not know, who interposed herself between me and the viragos long enough for me to make my escape. But quite a number of people, including several women, had their clothes torn off their backs as they left the building.14

Another illustration of the violence of the situation and the attitude of the police was what happened to Leonard Howard of the NLHL. With blood streaming down his face he was attacked again and again. He eventually took refuge in a furniture van, and the police finally acted- they grabbed him and threw him back to his attackers.15 It seems that Howard and other League members present played an active part in the physical defence of the Church.

Needless to say the conference broke up; when John Maclean turned up a bit later all he saw was 'a howling mob of male and female dervishes' .16 Among the consequences of this rather one-sided fighting were numerous injuries, including lacerated heads and serious cuts; one delegate nearly had his eye gouged out by a stick; and a young woman had her throat badly cut when someone in the crowd tried to grab her necklace.

A. M. Barker the 18-year-old son of H. A. Barker - was present at the time and wrote of his experience to me:

But I will tell of an awful scene of a woman being swung around by her hair, the technique of women's fighting in those days - and which could cause terrible scalp wounds - and a crowd of god knows how many howling 'do her in' and horrible language. . . . The next morning I found the Church itself wrecked, a shameful shambles of broken windows, broken down doors, smashed pews, piano, organ, and the floors of the Church almost solid with brickbats. I almost broke down and cried at this terrible shameful sight.

The police arrested only one man - one of the delegates. The excuse given for the police inactivity by the sub-inspector in charge was 'that to have attempted to arrest anyone would have depleted our force and given them [the rioters] the opportunity of attacking the Church.' In actuality the role of the police consisted entirely of gently shooing the rioters from the ruined hall after they had worked themselves out - a classic example of low-profile policing?

The events at the Brotherhood Church raise questions which have never been satisfactorily answered as to the extent to which the authorities were involved in the attacks on, and harrassment of, the anti-War movement. They were certainly involved - as the Basil Thomson evidence establishes - in sometimes making sure that potential attackers were informed of the venues of private meetings; what is not clear - although there were deep suspicions at the time - is to what extent the authorities were involved in the attacks themselves. Certainly the presence of large numbers of troops in uniform is significant, as is the total lack of any arrests, in spite of the prior presence of ample police. What happened at the Brotherhood Church was not an isolated event as I hope this text shows, and what happened on a local scale was repeated nationally.

To take two more North London examples of harrassment of meetings. On September 1st, 1917, a meeting was called at Highbury Corner by the WSF and the Women's Peace Crusade.17 The advertised speakers were Sylvia Pankhurst, ex-inspector Symes, Nellie Best, Patricia Lynch and Reg Sorenson. At the last moment the organisers moved the meeting to the corner of Lofting Road and Caledonian Road, leaving a large hostile crowd - which had been roused by leaflets calling on all good 'patriots' to oppose the meeting - soaking in the rain. The Anti-German League was again in evidence, led on this occasion by a man called Richard Glover.

On October 17th, 1917, there was another attack on a meeting at the Brotherhood Church, at which the speaker was Bertrand Russell and the chairman was F. R. Swan. There were about 200 foot and 40 mounted police in attendance, but 'in spite' of the strong force of police, large numbers of rioters got into the Church, broke up the meeting, poured petrol over the rostrum and set it alight. The ensuing fire did considerable damage and was eventually put out by the fire brigade which had been present before the meeting started.

After these attacks the Brotherhood Church received partial compensation amounting to £400 from the Government. This was only a fraction of the total damage done, and the wrecked Church was surrounded by an eight foot high hoarding. The damage received by the building made it unsuitable for any further large meetings during the War, but smaller gatherings continued.

With the coming of peace the Church continued to function, but it was in severe financial difficulties, having to foot the bill for repairing the damage it had received during the War. It continued to be a centre for a wide range of political activities. For example, the first two conferences of the Young Communist League was held there18 And trade union branches, local Labour Parties, the SPGB, the Women's Co-operative Guild and the Shoreditch Unemployed all met at the Church. Eventually funds ran out and the Church finally closed its doors on March 18th, 1934. Regular meetings of the congregation continued at the Essex Road Library until the death of F. R. Swan in October 1938; the last meeting was held on January 12th 1939.19

After the final closure, surviving members of the Brotherhood Church apparently used to meet in Walthamstow until the early 1960s. As I was writing this text I was surprised to discover that a Brotherhood Church still exists at Stapleton, near Pontefract, Yorkshire. This community is a direct descendant of the Brotherhood community at Purleigh in Essex, which was itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood Church at Croydon.20

  • 1 I suspect that the Walthamstow Brotherhood Church was connected with the Walthamstow Free Christian Church. whose minister, Reg Sorenson played an important part in the anti-War movement in North London.
  • 2 For information on some of the Brotherhood communities see Dennis Hardy AllemalÙ'e Communities in nineteenth Century England, 1979. pp. 165-210.
  • 3 In the 1890s. the Croydon Brotherhood Church was the main publisher of Tolstoy's social writings; its minister.J. C. Kenworthy was also a well known anti-War campaigner.
  • 4 The best source of information on H. A. Barker is his entry in The Dictionary of Labour Biograpkv by Barbara Nield and John Saville. I am also grateful for considerable help given me by A. M. Barker.
  • 5 Among those present at the Brotherhood Church on this occasion were Lenin, Stalin. Trotsky, Plekhanov, Gorky, Zinoviev and Rosa Luxemburg.
  • 6 R..J. Campbell died in 1956.
  • 7 Herbert Burrows was a civil servant who lived in Highbury. The son of a Chartist, he was a founder-member of the SDF, and for many years he was one of its most notable leaders. He stood as the SDF parliamentary candidate in Haggerston in 1908 and 1910, but resigned from the party in 1911 in protest at the leadership's growing chauvinism. Burrows was quite active in the anti-War movement in spite of growing ill health. In September 1916 he represented Shoreditch Trades Council at a WSF conference on women in industry, which must have been one of his last public appearances. He died in 1921 after 6 years of serious illness.
  • 8 See the Daily Herald, March 27th, 1931.
  • 9 The Leeds Convention was called by the United Socialist Council, an alliance of the BSP, the ILP and the Fabian Society. Incidentally, the joint secretaries of the Convention were Francis Johnson of Finsbury ILP and Albert Inkpin of Hackney BSP, both National Secretaries of their respective organisations. However, the movement towards the Convention had been initiated by the National Herald League. One oft-forgotten aspect of the Convention was that the jingoist opposition to it culminated in what was virtually a pogrom in the Jewish area of Leeds.
  • 10 See Sir Basil Thomson, The Scene Changes, 1939, p. 383, quoted in Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, 1977. I can recommend this book which, while primarily dealing with the SLP is a valuable source of background information about the period covered by this text.
  • 11 Workers' Dreadnought, August 4th, 1917.
  • 12 Bottomley, with a long record of dubious financial dealings behind him, was elected MP for South Hackney in1906. Funnily enough, Islington Trades and Labour Council issued a manifesto supporting him in 1910. During the War his paper, John Bull, led the pack with the most virulently 'anti-German' rhetoric, while Bottomley himself made a fortune 'giving' recruiting and patriotic speeches for money. In 1922 he was sentenced to 7 years' imprisonment for fraud and had to resign his seat.
  • 13 Francis Meynell, 1891-1975, typographer, worked on the Daily Herald, of which he became a director between 1918 and 1920. Meynell wrote the first explicit attack on the War to appear in the Weekly Herald in December 1914. At the time of the riot at the Brotherhood Church he was a member of the WSF. After the War he joined the Communist Party and for a short time was the editor of their journal The Communist. He seems to have left the CP some time in the 1920s. He was knighted in 1946.
  • 14 See The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 2 (1914-1944) pp. 31-32.
  • 15 Workers' Dreadnought, August 4th, 1917.
  • 16 See Nan Milton, John Maclean, 1973, p. 142.
  • 17 The Women's Peace Crusade had emerged in Glasgow in 1916. It rapidly expanded into a national network, much of its support coming from working- class women and socialist-feminists. It was not only engaged in the anti-War struggle, but also in a whole range of other issues, notaby rent strikes.
  • 18 These two conferences were held in August 1922 and October 1923. Harry Young, who was the YCL's first National Organiser, had also been a member of the NLHL. In 1926 he represented the YCL on the Executive Committee of the CP and he also spent some time in the Soviet Union. Harry left the Party in the mid-1930s and from 1940 until the present time (1982) he has been an active member of the SPGB. Harry has been a most valuable source of information on the NLHL and on radical events in North London generally. I would like to make special acknowledgment here of my debt of gratitude to him.
  • 19 The minutes of the Brotherhood Church, 1926-1939, are held at the Islington Central Library.
  • 20 There is a most interesting account of the Stapleton church in A. G. Higgins, A History of the Brotherhood Church published by the Brotherhood Church, Stapleton, Nr. Pontefract, Yorkshire. (Price £4 plus postage.)



11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Fozzie on January 24, 2013

Thanks for this, good stuff! More on the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party conference at the church here: http://hackneyhistory.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/lenin-in-hackney/